The prolific British historian Niall Ferguson contends that the Second World War began in July 1937, when, after an “incident” at the Marco Polo Bridge on the outskirts of Beijing, Japan sent five divisions to Northern and coastal China. By the end of the year, more than 800,000 Japanese troops occupied 150,000 square miles of Chinese territory, and the Chinese capital of Nanking had been literally raped and pillaged by Japanese forces.
It is important for statesmen and policymakers to study and understand history, but the use of historical analogies to inform policy is fraught with dangers. The United States and its allies discovered that the “lessons of Munich” of 1930s Europe, for example, were not easily translatable to wars on the Korean peninsula and later in Southeast Asia in the 1950s and 60s.
History does not repeat itself. Every historical event occurs in its own time and circumstances. That is not to say that policymakers cannot learn important lessons from history, but their precise application to current or future events is at best problematic and at worst a recipe for disaster.
“Man cannot control the current of events,” remarked Otto von Bismarck, “he can only float with them and steer.” The great German Chancellor understood that it is much easier to design a grand strategy for international politics than to implement one.
William J Rust has been researching and studying the history of US relations with the nations of Southeast Asia for more than three decades in an effort to explain the origins of the Second Indochina War. His latest book, Eisenhower & Cambodia, focuses on the Eisenhower administration’s policies toward Cambodia and its mercurial leader Norodom Sihanouk after that country gained its independence in the wake of the First Indochina War against France.
China today is ruled by a party-state totalitarian dictatorship. That is the conclusion of Stein Ringen’s thoughtful and careful analysis in his new book The Perfect Dictatorship. It is a conclusion that will be unpopular and challenged in Asian and other world capitals, where it is a strongly held belief (or hope) that China’s government is a “normal”, traditional authoritarian regime and can be dealt with accordingly.
From 1961 to 1975, the US Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) coordinated a proxy war in Laos as a part of America’s larger effort to prevent communism from overrunning all of Southeast Asia. Codenamed “Operation Momentum”, the largely clandestine effort involved arming, training, and providing military assistance to anti-communist forces in Laos led by Hmong tribesmen and their military chief Vang Pao.
As Joshua Kurlantzick points out in his new book A Great Place to Have a War, the effort in Laos, like America’s larger effort in Vietnam, ultimately failed, resulting in Communists taking power in South Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia, while arguably transforming the primary role of the CIA from intelligence gathering to paramilitary operations.
It is unfortunate that Victor Cha chose to overlay his otherwise interesting history of the development of America’s Asian alliances in the early Cold War years with international relations theory and academic jargon more suitable to journals that only professors read. After reading the initial chapters where he discusses “determinants of overdependence,” “entrapment fear,” “undercommitment pathology,” “conditions for distancing,” and separates multilateralism and bilateralism into “quandrants,” I nearly gave up. I am glad that I plodded on because much of the rest of the book is thought-provoking, especially when divorced from the academic models.